What is Celiac Disease?

If you’ve recently made a trip to the grocery store, you’ve probably noticed an increase of “gluten-free” foods lining the shelves. Gluten-free dieting has become the latest weight loss trend, with stars like Miley Cyrus and Gwyneth Paltrow swearing by it. But the gluten-free diet has actually been around for decades, and it was designed to help those with gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and prevents proper absorption of nutrients. It is triggered by an abnormal response to gluten, a protein composite found in wheat, rye and barley. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, the immune system reacts by harming the villi of the small intestine. The villi are small, finger-like protrusions that absorb nutrients from food and carry it into the blood stream. When the villi are damaged, they are unable to properly absorb nutrients, causing the body to become malnourished.

There are more than 300 symptoms of celiac disease, and they can vary from person to person. However, some of the most common symptoms in adults include (Source: WebMD):

  • Iron deficiency
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Arthritis
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Bone loss or osteoporosis
  • Tingling numbness in hands and feet
  • Seizures
  • Erratic menstrual periods
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Mouth sores

Treatment for celiac disease requires strict adherence to a gluten-free diet. This can be tricky at first, because gluten is often found in foods you might not suspect, such as soy sauce, deli meats and taco seasoning. It may be helpful to work with a nutritionist to develop a gluten-free diet that is well-balanced and nutritious. Of course, gluten-free labels can be helpful in choosing the right foods, but be sure to read the list of ingredients and fine print as well. Some gluten-free foods are processed in facilities that also process wheat and can still be harmful.

If you suspect that you have celiac disease, visit your doctor to discuss your symptoms. Your doctor can perform a blood test to check for gluten antibodies. Accuracy of the test relies on having gluten in your diet, so be sure not to give up gluten until receiving further instruction from your doctor. It can take months, or even years for the villi to completely heal from the damage caused by celiac disease, but symptoms should improve rapidly when a gluten-free diet is implemented.